Somali rebel commander urges Kenya attacks
By Peter Martell (AFP)
NAIROBI — Kenya, battling Islamist rebels in southern Somalia and facing attacks at home, vowed on Thursday to withdraw its forces as soon as it had defeated the Al-Qaeda linked militants.
Kenyan troops clashed heavily Thursday with Shebab fighters in southern Somalia, the latest battle since an unprecedented military incursion 12 days ago, while four people were killed in a rocket attack in northern Kenya.
"The Kenyan government's strategy is to destroy Al-Shebab's network within the shortest time possible," government spokesman Alfred Mutua said, warning the militants posed a "clear and present danger" to the region.
"Kenya has no plans or intentions to stay in Somalia an hour beyond necessary," Mutua told reporters, but set no timeframe.
Kenya launched its assault after attacks on its territory and the abduction of several foreigners it blames on Shebab extremists, claims the rebels deny.
Troops and tanks have pushed some 100 kilometres (60 miles) into Shebab-controlled southern Somalia, with fighting raging Thursday.
"There has been a confrontation that is ongoing...it happened when our troops confronted about 45 Shebab fighters," said Kenyan military spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir.
On Thursday, four people died when gunmen fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a vehicle carrying government officials in Elwak region near the Kenya-Somali border, but it was not immediately clear who was behind the attack.
The attack comes three days after two grenade blasts in Nairobi which killed one person and wounded dozens of others, to which a Kenyan man has pleaded guilty of involvement.
Kenyan police chief Mathew Iteere said that Kenyan youths had joined Shebab forces, and called for vigilance to prevent possible attacks.
"We have credible information there is quite a number of young people who have crossed into Somalia to fight for Al-Shebab," Iteere said, noting that these came from several of Kenya's ethnic groups, not just ethnic Somalis.
"We are talking about the bad elements from any of the communities."
Kenyan troops have been bogged down by heavy rains and made slow progress towards the strategic Shebab-held port of Kismayo.
Mutua said the assault had been planned for months in advance, adding the operation had been "going on for quite some time."
Kenya's assault prompted an angry response from Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who on Monday warned he would "not allow forces entering its soil without prior agreement."
Sharif's comments perhaps echo worries of some Somalis who oppose the Shebab, but who have expressed concern that Kenya's attack on the rebels may also include an attempt to carve out a buffer zone of control in the south.
However, Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali on Thursday said "Kenyan forces are inside Somali territory because of our official consent, the two countries have a bilateral agreement to fight Al-Shebab."
Mutua, in an apparent bid to ease tensions, stressed that Kenya would operate only with agreement of the African Union, the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
"Once our objective is met as per the framework of AU and IGAD, Kenyan troops will withdraw and leave the security operations to AU mission troops and TFG troops," Mutua said.
He also dismissed reports that Western nations were supporting Kenyan operations in the war-torn nation.
"With the United States, France, Britain and all our partners and we discuss matters with them," Mutua said.
"But they are not involved at all in the current operations going on inside Somalia."
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